Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
By Matthew Huntley
December 15, 2019
It would have been relatively easy for Hollywood to make a traditional biopic about Mister Rogers, especially after last year’s widely seen and much-lauded documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” In fact, one would think, given Mister Rogers’ popularity and influence as a preacher and television show host, a narrative version of his life story, which “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” recounted charmingly, was already waiting in the wings of a Hollywood studio, ready to bust out. And now, following the success of the non-fiction version, what better time to bring it to light, and to cast America’s reigning sweetheart, Tom Hanks, in the lead?
Luckily, the filmmakers behind “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” don’t opt for “easy” and instead take a more clever and unexpected approach to dramatizing the world of Mister Rogers, and one of the most surprising aspects of the film is it doesn’t make Fred Rogers or his beloved children’s television series the centerpieces of the story. His hopeful spirit and pragmatic philosophy are omnipresent, but Mister Rogers himself is more a supporting player.
Whether or not Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s screenplay, inspired by the 1998 Esquire article, “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, always followed this structure, or if it was altered after “Neighbor” came out and fulfilled most of the biopic duties, I cannot say for sure. But whatever the case, “Neighborhood” tells its own thoughtful and touching story, with real and fresh characters, and has an understated self-assurance. It flows at a slow, steady pace and turns out to be something special just the way it is. This is no coincidence, of course, because it’s the same approach to life that Mister Rogers expounded and celebrated.
In addition to placing Mister Rogers (Hanks) in the background of the main conflict, the filmmakers do the same thing with the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” TV show. It too is a supporting player of sorts and serves a platform on which to tell a heartfelt and engaging story of pain, resentment, redemption and forgiveness. Director Marielle Heller doesn’t even seem to bother being careful not to let Mister Rogers’ series steal the spotlight. She simply chooses not to, and even though we’re instantly absorbed by the show’s celesta theme music and trademark mise-en-scène—including the model neighborhood exteriors; the flimsy entryway; the “picture picture” display; the pastel walls; the nondescript benches and small staircases; the toy castles; the variety of puppets—our gaze eventually turns elsewhere as we realize these elements will nurture the story rather than be it.
The film starts out like any episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with the jolly host singing his signature “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” song, changing into his red cardigan and navy blue sneakers, and telling us what we’re going to learn today. He shows a picture board and one of the images on it is of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who looks shocked and angry and has blood on his face. We soon find out what happened to him as the story segues from this imaginary sequence to Lloyd’s real-life dilemma. He’s an investigative journalist for Esquire, and a rather arrogant one at that, whose editor (Christine Lahti) has just assigned him a “puff piece,” as he would say—a 400-word profile on Mister Rogers.
Why should Lloyd be the one who gets stuck interviewing a man who plays with puppets for a living? Because Mister Rogers is one of the few high-profile people still willing talk to Lloyd, who doesn’t have the greatest reputation for being humble or amiable.
For Lloyd, this new assignment comes at an already tense period in his life. He’s just had a baby boy with his patient wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson); he travels all the time for work; and he’s just had an unpleasant reunion with his estranged, alcoholic father (Chris Cooper) at his sister Lorraine’s (Tammy Blanchard) third wedding. Anger, cynicism and weariness have become Lloyd’s way of life, and because Mister Rogers is, in a way, his exact opposite, Lloyd automatically assumes the old man isn’t playing with a full deck. Mister Rogers’ sheer positivity, compassion and incessant smile prompt Lloyd to say, “I need to know if this guy is real.”
That’s the burning question we all have watching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” or at least at first. Our initial wondering about Mister Rogers’ authenticity as a hopeful believer and unwavering optimist gradually shifts to our wondering why Lloyd (and we) can’t be the same way. Why should we automatically assume life has to be a struggle and that we must push and force ourselves into it, as if it’s something we have to endure rather than enjoy?
It’s clear we’re supposed to view the world through Lloyd’s cautious and suspicious eyes, especially when we learn about his rocky past with his father, who all but abandoned him, Lorraine and his dying mother. But that was then, and along comes Mister Rogers, who suggests to Lloyd, during their intimate one-on-one interviews, that no matter what hurdles life throws at us, we can always utilize simple concepts and exercises like breathing, sitting silently for a full minute, or playing the piano to deal with and express our feelings. Even though the film’s positive lessons are blatant, they are practices we forget almost daily. Where Heller is careful is to not press the straightforward themes upon us too much. She presents them gently, quietly and simply, just as they are. But the movie is not pushy for not pushy sake; it simply isn’t pushy, as if the concept of being too aggressive with its views was never even part of the equation.
The advice Mister Rogers bestows upon Lloyd for his article, which evolves from a 400-word profile into a 10,000-word cover story, naturally seems too simple and good to be true. After leaving the theater, I felt the same way about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Surely a Hollywood narrative film about Mister Rogers has to be more complicated, controversial and juicy than this. It has to suggest something dark, perverse or wicked about Fred Rogers.
But then Mister Rogers’ teachings come around to me and I become mindful of the fact that, especially in this day and age, we’ve merely conditioned ourselves to automatically lean toward a negative and skeptical point of view, as if feeling mistrustful about the world means we’re navigating it correctly. The beauty and value of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is that it reminds us, or perhaps lets us know for the first time, it doesn’t have to be this way. The world can be grand and wonderful by default. That’s a fanciful and idealistic notion, I know, but it’s also a useful and challenging one.
There may be a lot more to the real Mister Rogers than “Neighborhood” lets on, but that’s the subject of another story. This one is about Lloyd and his family and the small part Mister Rogers plays in it. Its objective isn’t to be accurate so much as lift us up through the spirt and complexity of the characters and what they come to learn and appreciate. The film’s deliberately low-key presentation, combined with everything we’ve taken in during Lloyd’s journey and under Mister Rogers’ tutelage, leaves us feeling calm, relaxed and confident as we head out to live, as opposed to face, each day. These are feelings I’m sure Mister Rogers would want us to have.